Once again I’ve been immersed in Belizean politics, local and national, all in one day, this past Friday. Every Friday during our 8 weeks of training we are required to travel to Belmopan to the Peace Corps office for training with all 38 of us who are scattered in our separate villages. During this training session, we were treated to a lively lecture on Belizean history and politics by Senator Hulse. He has been involved one way or another in Belizean politics since the inception of this young country in 1981. He regaled us with stories of the British loggers who first settled here with their African slaves in the 18th century, and explained the intricacies of the continuing conflicts with Guatemala over Belize’s western border. We learned of the Garifuna and the Maya who continue to maintain their unique cultures in this polyglot nation. He even brought us up to date on the conflicts between Chinese merchants in Belize City and the Creole gangs who recently murdered a Chinese immigrant. Generally, though, all the various linguistic and cultural groups here in multicultural Belize tend to get along well, and the Senator emphasized that Belize has never been subjected to the brutal dictatorships and military coups that other Central American countries have suffered. Belize has a strong, vibrant democracy, and if what I’ve experienced so far in the short time since I’ve arrived is indicative, the populace is actively involved in the governance of their villages, towns, cities and the nation.
The same day as my history/politics lesson with the Senator, I experienced firsthand the messy nature of direct democracy. That evening Diana had called an emergency meeting in the village’s community center to address some rumors and complaints that had been circulating. To my surprise, she asked me to come along for (what I thought was) the purpose of observing and getting to know some of the villagers. Little did I know that a few seconds after 70 or so people arrived, she would involve me in her village’s disputes and conflicts that have been seething under the surface for generations. She began the meeting and asked me if I would translate into Spanish for the 20 or so villagers who don’t understand English, and I eagerly agreed, not realizing that I would soon be translating the angry words of several who aired their long-standing grievances in odious tones. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, it is imperative that I remain neutral, so my role as translator was merely to restate in Spanish whatever each speaker was trying to convey, without emotion or editorial comment. What a challenge that was! I was never quite sure I completely understood the entire story behind the complaint the speaker was voicing, so I simply translated as many words as I could retain in my head while the speaker angrily spoke. I was translating for the elderly Spanish-speaking people who were curious about each emotional outburst expressed by their English- and Kriol-speaking friends and neighbors. Afterward they shook my hand and thanked me for helping them to understand, although I remained slightly unclear about the details of each of the conflicts. As far as I could ascertain in the heat of the meeting itself, the disagreements involved who could sign off on checks from the community’s account, who had the authority to make the decision concerning the installment of electricity in the community center, and finally, and most hotly debated, who would decide the allocation of plots of land within the village. Diana calmly explained each issue to the villagers, but I had to continually remind her to slow down so that I could translate. I was exhausted after a couple of hours. Many of the villagers apologized to me for having been subjected to such unseemly behavior, as they put it to me, but I reassured them that the process of working through conflicts is universally difficult and untidy. I reiterated to them that I’m enjoying being in their beautiful country, and that I was merely witnessing their democracy in action. I expressed confidence that all of their concerns would be resolved because of their passionate participation. Later, in Diana’s home, we stayed awake until 1:00 am as she narrated in detail the history of the community discord, and especially the personalities involved in the long-standing disputes.
I hope the rest of my encounters with the villagers will be on more neutral territory, and I especially hope that I can contribute something positive to the little elementary school that has been assigned to our Peace Corps group while we’re training here.
I also hope that all my friends, family and former students back in the US are enjoying the emergence of spring. Here in Belize we're suffering the sweltering heat of summer. Lots of love, Ava